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Details scarce on government plan to be carbon neutral

So the Yukon government plans to be carbon neutral by 2020. Sounds great. But what does it mean, exactly? How much greenhouse gas emissions does the territory put into the atmosphere each year, anyway? How do you calculate...

So the Yukon government plans to be carbon neutral by 2020.

Sounds great. But what does it mean, exactly?

How much greenhouse gas emissions does the territory put into the atmosphere each year, anyway? How do you calculate this?

And what counts as an offset to help balance Yukon’s carbon ledger?

Nobody knows yet.

Answers to these questions should be ready by 2010, said Diane Gunter, Yukon’s acting climate change co-ordinator.

Work has just began, under a new climate change secretariat set up under the Department of Environment.

Yukon rolled out its climate change action plan earlier this month, just days before environment ministers from across Canada met in Whitehorse.

The plan includes targets for the territorial government to cap greenhouse gas emissions in 2010, reduce emissions by 20 per cent by 2015, and become carbon neutral by 2020.

A Yukon-wide emissions target is also to be set by 2010.

These targets gave Environment Minister Elaine Taylor something to boast about at the big meeting. But now comes the hard part: trying to figure out how to meet them.

While the territory isn’t ready to talk in detail yet, it’s still possible to run some rough numbers, says John Streicker, a Green Party candidate and climate change expert.

The entire territory produces about 400,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases annually, according to federal figures.

And the Yukon government probably accounts for one-quarter of economic activity, estimates Streicker. That’s equal to roughly 100,000 tonnes of greenhouse emissions.

For the government to become carbon neutral, these emissions must either be eliminated, or cancelled out with projects that prevent emissions from being released into the atmosphere.

Most of the government’s emissions come from two sources: the burning of fossil fuels to heat buildings and to haul goods up the Alaska Highway.

The territory has a few proposals to curb these emissions. For example, the government plans to boost the energy efficiency of government-owned buildings and to replace aging light vehicles in its fleet with new, more efficient ones.

But these efficiency upgrades will doubtless leave a lot of carbon to be balanced out.

Hydro upgrades may help. Premier Dennis Fentie says the federal government is going to help pay for a pricey expansion of the Mayo hydroelectric dam.

By producing an additional 13 megawatts of electricity, Yukon Energy says the project will offset 28,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases a year.

That’s a lot of carbon - probably about one-quarter of the government’s output.

But should it count as an offset? It depends on how the energy is used, said Streicker.

How much of this hydro-power will replace diesel being burned to heat government buildings? And how much will be sucked up by new mines?

Emission-free power projects, such as hydro, should only count as a carbon credit if they displace carbon that would otherwise be burned, said Streicker. They don’t count if they’re responding to the needs of new developments.

There are other renewable energy sources being explored by the territory, such as harnessing geothermal heat from the ground, which could further reduce the amount of heating oil being burned.

But Yukon is sure to remain dependent on burning fossil fuels.

Traffic on the Alaska Highway isn’t going to be powered by hydrogen fuel cells or electricity any time soon. And jetsetting cabinet ministers and bureaucrats will need to find a way to offset their travel emissions.

To balance these emissions and become carbon neutral, the government will need to fund new projects that offset emissions.

Yukon could pay into funds already set up to fund green projects. Or it could start its own, and use that money to fund green initiatives - a choice that Streicker prefers.

There are many options. But Streicker is particularly interested in a scheme that involves local farmers stirring up earth and compost in such a way that “grows” new soil, which then absorbs carbon.

“You can actually pull carbon out of the atmosphere,” he said.

It’s too early to say how ambitious Yukon’s carbon plan will be. That’s to be determined by the details - of which there are many.

Do we include emissions of vehicles hauling government goods? If so, how much?

Streicker recommends counting these emissions - but only once trucks cross the BC-Yukon border.

And what greenhouse gases do you count? Carbon dioxide is but one.

As with any form of accounting, it would be possible for the Yukon government to cook the carbon books.

For example, “It would be a cheat if they started renting buildings and said it’s not their greenhouse gas emissions,” said Streicker.

The government plans to publish annual emission reports on The Climate Registry, a nonprofit group that verifies such carbon curbing efforts.

Contact John Thompson at